In the past few years, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian and Somali migrants have charted a new route to the Gulf.

By Idil Osman

This is the third part of The Thin Red Line, an African Arguments series focusing on dynamics around the Red Sea.

When Yemen’s civil war erupted in 2015, it was widely expected that migration to the country would nosedive. Typically when a nation goes to war, outsiders stay away for obvious reasons. But in Yemen’s case, the ongoing deadly instability was not enough to deter the 100,000 people that arrived last year or the 117,000 who arrived in 2016. Despite widespread insecurity that has led more than two million Yemenis to flee their homes, migrants continue to disembark on the Gulf nation’s war-torn shores.

Most are from the Horn of Africa. People from this region have been making this journey for decades for trade, religious pilgrimage, economic opportunities, or in times of emergency. The surge in the oil market in the 1970s precipitated a sudden demand for unskilled workers in the Arab Peninsula, and labor migrants have been coming to Yemen since its unification in the early-1990s.


Many of today’s migrants are driven by the same motivations as their predecessors, but there are also important dynamics at play that are unique to now and that are responsible for the continued flows in the face of great dangers. Although happening below the surface and rarely examined, these often perilous and fraught movements of people form a crucial human bond that links the Horn of Africa and the Gulf across the thin Red Sea.

Who is leaving and where?

The first question regarding migration from the Horn of Africa to Yemen and beyond is why people are leaving their homes in the first place. The answer depends on the country.

In Ethiopia, political instability and land scarcity have contributed to a growing number of people leaving the country in the past few years. In Eritrea, indefinite national service and political repression are consistent push factors for the thousands that flee every month. And in Somalia, ongoing insecurity and recurring drought are often cited as the main reasons for departing. But in almost all cases, the hope of greater economic opportunity – and knowing people who have made the journeys before – is also a key factor.

“I chose to migrate because in my youth I have often seen young people in my neighborhood who succeeded in becoming rich through migration,” said one Ethiopian migrant. “My wife insisted that we leave and search for a better life, rather than staying and living in poor conditions,” explained another.

Of the millions of people in the region that migrate, the majority move internally or to neighboring countries. Many others travel up the treacherous desert to the North African coast, with Europe the final destination. But hundreds of thousands decide to traverse the Red Sea.

One reason for this is that the Gulf is now part of a new path from the Horn of Africa to Europe. This route allows migrants starting in Somalia to bypass Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Eritrea by traveling instead from Puntland, a semi-autonomous region in north-east Somalia, across the sea to Yemen. From here, migrants cross back to Sudan and continue over land.

This route is particularly popular among young Somali men from relatively affluent backgrounds, but a number of Ethiopians also follow this course. First cited in 2015, this journey has grown in popularity. The networks and support structures that facilitate this movement have strengthened significantly, making the route easier – if still highly perilous – to navigate. Smugglers have also started offering tempting “leave now, pay later” schemes. Increased border controls in Sudan and Ethiopia in the wake of insecurity have also added reasons to try circumventing these countries.

Those who stay

Not all migrants who head to the Gulf, however, are on their way to Europe. Some intend to stay in Yemen, seeking jobs in the khat or farming industry or as domestic or low-skilled workers. Others hope to continue on to other more prosperous Gulf States, which are less expensive to reach than Europe.

The most popular destination is Saudi Arabia, where many Ethiopians take up low-skilled or manual jobs in often deplorable conditions. “Migrants’ living conditions are horrible, inhuman. Their rights are not respected,” said one informant. Nonetheless, there are an estimated 400,000 undocumented Ethiopian migrants currently working in Saudi Arabia.

Other migrants who reach Yemen seek asylum. Somalis, for example, enjoy prima facie refugee status in the country. In 2015, there were almost 250,000 Somali refugees in the country, living in camps or urban areas.

Finally, some who end up in Yemen simply find themselves trapped there, their journeys cut short by conflict or lack of funds.

Some migrants eventually return to the Horn of Africa, creating a flow of people back to the continent that also includes tens of thousands of Yemenis. These Gulf migrants rarely have strong diasporic connections to the region and so typically try to settle in Djibouti or Somalia, which are closer and therefore cheaper to reach. Smaller numbers who can afford it try to get to Ethiopia or Sudan, but many more affluent Yemenis opt to travel to the likes of Malaysia, Saudi Arabia or India.

Why the route remains popular

Governments in the region have tried to reduce these irregular flows through regulations, border controls, and public awareness campaigns. In 2013, Ethiopia went a step further by banning domestic workers from going to the Middle East in order to protect its citizens from abuse. This decision came shortly after Saudi Arabia deported over a hundred thousand Ethiopians in a violent crackdown on undocumented workers.

The ban, however, did little to stop migration to the Gulf. Its main effect was to force Ethiopian migrants to take more irregular routes in which they are more vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and death. The prohibition was lifted in February 2018.

The popularity of traveling to Yemen has also been largely unaffected by greater restrictions, clampdowns on smugglers, and tighter border controls. In 2016, these measures significantly reduced the numbers of Ethiopians traveling overland to North Africa but did little to dissuade migrants crossing the sea to the Gulf. The flow of Red Sea arrivals from Djibouti and Somalia held steady, while the number of Ethiopians arriving in Yemen actually increased. The illegal networks facilitating these movements remain resilient and far-reaching.

Even the 2015 outbreak of war in Yemen has not significantly deterred migrants. In fact, many have been encouraged by the breakdown of state institutions in Yemen and subsequent lack of policy and control. They believe (or are led to believe by smugglers) that this vacuum provides an opportunity to enter, travel through, and exit the country unnoticed. The deteriorating situation and lack of legal routes has also helped smugglers and traffickers establish profitable, exploitative and abusive networks that can operate with relative impunity.

“Previously, migration was simple and normal,” said an ex-smuggler in Yemen’s capital Sana’a. “A smuggler was just like a guide who assists you and receives a wage in return. Nowadays, it is different. Smuggling is an organized network of selling humans. This change is due to the greed of smugglers and those who buy and sell human beings.”

Despite the dangers of the routes taken, the often deplorable and traumatic conditions on arrival, and campaigns aimed at deterring migrants, the flow of people from the Horn of Africa to the Gulf remains strong. Moreover, most people who take these journeys do not seem to regret their decisions. As a key informant in Sana’a put it: “If the benefit of migration is measured by the simple amounts that migrants make as income, transfer, and save, then they have benefited”.

These startling and worrying realities call for a different understanding of, and approach to, migration between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. As thousands continue to migrate in the face of countless threats and hazards that are often made even graver by blunt government measures, policymakers must examine the real effects of their actions on the individuals involved. Rather than repeating the same failed and dangerous policies, they should consider a coordinated approach that protects and assists migrants and expands opportunities for safe regular movement.

Idil Osman

Idil Osman is a Research Associate and Senior Teaching Fellow at SOAS. Her work focuses on Somalia, the Horn of Africa, migration, media, development, conflict and the diaspora.

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